Many cellular processes are driven by molecular motors, specialized proteins that utilize the energy generated from chemical reactions to perform physical work. Molecular motors play key roles in, for example, muscle contraction, protein degradation and recycling, cargo transport, and cell motility. Defects in motor function are implicated broadly in cancer, as well as numerous cardiovascular, neurological, and reproductive diseases. Researchers in the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group are interested in studying the complex conformational transitions that underlie the chemo-mechanical action of molecular motors toward characterizing their mechanisms and relationships to human disease.

Spotlight: Resolving Molecular Motor Action (Jun 2015)

RNA translocation by Rho

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Many processes in living cells require molecular motors. Examples are transport of cargo within a cell, degrading misfolded proteins, and controlling gene expression. In the latter case acts a motor, called Rho, that moves along messenger RNA. The energy of the cell's motors stems from molecules of ATP that are converted to ADP, release thereby energy and drive motor action. How exactly this happens remained largely a mystery, despite decades of study and despite the availability of detailed molecular structures of the motors. A molecular dynamics study employing NAMD has achieved a great breakthrough in resolving the mechanism by which ATP-to-ADP conversion drives Rho to translocate along RNA. While molecular dynamics simulation, in principle, is well suited to explain Rho's motor action, the problem was that the action takes about a millisecond which is a time period beyond such simulations' reach. Employing new sampling methods, a recent publication, reported in new, complete and fascinating detail how Rho works. The simulations permitted literally to look under the hood of Rho's engine and see how it pulls itself along RNA and coordinates a cyclic and repeated motor action. It turned out that Rho, a ring of six identical protein subunits, engages in an ATP-to-ADP conversion-induced periodic motion of the subunits that pushes RNA electrostatically through the ring center. A completely surprising finding was the existence of coordination switches that make each ATP-to-ADP conversion lead to exactly one forward step along the RNA and keep the six subunits strictly synchronized, turning a randomly moving protein system into a well-behaved engine. More on our molecular motor website.

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